Beginning in January 2019, I began a twenty-week a therapy program called Systems Training for Emotional Predictability and Problem Solving, or STEPPS. Each week I undertook a seven-hour round trip, generally with an overnight stay, to attend a session that lasted between one and half to two hours. During this time, life happened: a relationship breakup, a psychotic breakdown, and a personal breakthrough. By meeting some very intelligent, interesting and courageous people, I realised I was not alone.
Birch and pine burn. The fire absorbs my gaze, but not the pain. For two months I struggled to maintain emotional balance while my fists struck this hated face. Sleep, so fleeting, confused the days, when reason could no longer constrain paranoia, and friends became threatening, calculating, with hidden agendas. Eventually, I decide to take a chance and trust the one who promised they would be there for me, who could ease the suffering and stop the fists that bludgeon, or close eyes that desire sleep. Why do this on the eve of my starting STEPPS therapy?
A funeral. A conference of death. Sixteen sit at a rectangle of tables placed side by side, and look into the rectangle’s centre as if it were an open coffin. And though sixteen human beings sit cramped together, each is alone. There exists a general air that ‘I cannot be helped’. After all, some here have been surviving life, quite literally, for forty or more years, and have lost all faith in the medical profession.
Tattoos. Embroidered jumpers. Red lips, black lips, mascara. Occasional smiles met with nervous gazes. The group members sit within themselves, silent, as the course leader introduces herself as Brenda. Folders to contain the worksheets for the next twenty weeks of group therapy are passed around by two other psychiatric nurses as Brenda introduces STEPPS.
DUMPED. Half hour before week two of STEPPS therapy, a text informs me that the relationship is over and it is better for me to move on. An informal note, signed 'Kindest Regards,' written by someone who made me believe that we were a rare and special thing, destined to walk through all our lifetimes, for eternity, together.
Therapy begins with paperwork. Each week we record mood intensity and regularity, and symptoms experienced, so that at the end of the 20-week STEPPS program we can see how we have progressed. Then lots of reading follows, whereby each group member in turn reads aloud a section of text. The text, written by psychiatrists, is dense. How are we supposed to digest it? The words are impenetrable, nonsensical, empty. And when the world goes dark, and I sense my glasses slip off my face and hit the table, I’ve got no chance. The mumbling drone of the course leader, Brenda, remains on the periphery of my consciousness, until I surface from the darkness of the girlfriend-text-dump, adjust my smile, and interact as if nothing happened. The great pretender returns, a little embarrassed, but ready for the next fight.
Anguish. She has left, she is gone. “Stop emailing me. Don’t send me any more letters. You are draining, suffocating, and you only ever think about yourself, never what I need.”
Anguish. No more contact? But we are meant to be together, for our love is rare. We will walk the same path in this and every future lifetime. Her words, not mine, spoken after we had met at the Buddhist centre. Years of isolation in the darkness of self makes one want to trust the hand that reaches out, which offers a future of smiles and tenderness.